August 17, 2021

What it’s like being a senior researcher at Facebook Core Data Science

By: Meta Research

Facebook’s Core Data Science (CDS) team is pushing the envelope of what’s possible by exploring and solving novel challenges in science and technology. Senior researchers bring experience across disciplines that range from computer science and statistics to political science and sociology, using data to drive decision-making across product teams. “Our data supports product development across Facebook, and we see our results come to life as optimization, new features, and programs,” explains Shawndra Hill, CDS Research Scientist and Manager.

The unique cross-functional nature of the CDS team and available growth opportunities for senior researchers help set Facebook apart from academic research and other technology companies. Three team members share more about their areas of focus, what a day on the CDS team is like, and their best advice for helping senior researchers succeed.

Staying curious while using data to drive decisions

Ahmed Medhat is a post-graduate of Oxford University, where he studied collaborative behavior in online networks. He joined Facebook five years ago as a staff data scientist before transitioning into a research scientist role with the CDS team.

“Working as part of Facebook Data for Good, my current focus is on creating privacy-safe data sets and tools for addressing some of the world’s greatest humanitarian issues,” Ahmed explains. “Working on this as a research scientist, I’m challenged to find ways to help communities across the world that are both complementary to other resources provided by humanitarian organizations and as scalable and uniform as possible across different geographical regions. While with research in academia it can take some time to sense the real-world impact of one’s research, at Facebook we have a unique opportunity to see the direct impact our work has on the wider research community more quickly. For example, we created tools that can help organizations respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as looking at how populations are responding to physical distancing measures, to inform researchers and public health experts.”

Ahmed and his teams are driven by the opportunity to drive life-changing projects and offer something new. “Our work calls for a lot of autonomy and self-accountability,” he shares. “Staying curious and bringing a fresh perspective is important. For those interested in joining the CDS team as a senior researcher, my advice is to demonstrate the unique skills and perspectives that you can bring to Facebook. We also love to see adaptability and the ability to wear different hats. At this level, you’re expected to see beyond the daily minutiae of analysis and code writing, towards work that broadly impacts the company’s product direction and pushes the state of the art in your research area.”

Using passion to drive your research and career path

The CDS team’s Shawndra Hill is also a part-time senior marketing lecturer at Columbia University. She has a PhD in management information systems from NYU Stern School of Business, and prior to her role at Facebook, she was a Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. As a manager, Shawndra oversees projects while empowering her team to grow and succeed. Her current research is focused on deriving value from social networks and online behaviors for a range of Facebook’s business applications — specifically for advertising applications that bring people closer to the things they want and need.

“At the senior level, having strong project management skills is critical,” says Shawndra, in reference to her ability to split her time between leadership and individual project work. “During the interview process with Facebook, I saw limitless growth opportunities within the company because of the scale of data science problems, and was also specific about my desire to grow into a management position. With the support and opportunities available within Facebook Research, I was able to reach my goals of leading Facebook scale advertising projects as an individual contributor and becoming a manager within a year.”

Now, Shawndra says, leading a passionate team of researchers is one of her favorite parts of her role. “We’re collaborating in a fast-paced environment. People at Facebook want to translate research into product impact in a short amount of time, and for a researcher, that’s an exciting opportunity that doesn’t often exist in other career paths like academia. To succeed in this field, I suggest identifying the areas you’re most interested in and using that knowledge to find projects at the intersection of your passion and company priorities. From there, you’ll be well positioned to develop a relevant specialty for Facebook and prioritize projects for company impact. As a senior researcher, your experience and deep understanding of relevant research methodologies will add value to teams while also helping them to balance rigor with getting things done. My advice for other senior scientists is to be consistently excellent, someone others want to go to, the person they know they can depend on for quality output.”

Exploring every opportunity to find an area of focus

Ami Tavory holds a PhD in information theory from Tel Aviv University and is a Research Scientist on the CDS team. He was struck by Facebook’s collaborative structure upon joining nearly four years ago, and he found his place working closely with several highly skilled product teams, specializing in detecting and preventing fraud with machine learning in F2 (Facebook Financial Services).

“I’ve been continually impressed with how intentional the Research organization is about building and connecting groups,” he shares. “I’ve worked with several product teams, and have been surprised by the level of collaboration and support. This allows me to find several areas and projects that are the best fit for my interests and my experience. ”

Ami highlights the autonomy at Facebook as another unique aspect of being a part of the team, and says that for a senior researcher with deep experience, it’s an empowering benefit. “Take control of your personal path by exploring every opportunity available to you at Facebook,” he explains. “It’s important to find a combination of something you enjoy that also brings value to the team. Once you find this balance, things will naturally fall into place. We have people on our team who have successfully switched between a management track and a more technical path, and vice versa.

I’ve been blown away by the level of people with whom I work; on some occasions, I’ve read published studies only to realize that the authors are actually part of the Facebook team and happy to collaborate. No two days are the same here, and you’ll find endless opportunities to collaborate on solving complex challenges at scale.”

Interested in learning more about the CDS team? Check out their research team page.